“You don’t look Mexican!”
Yes I do, actually. This might be a good time for you to reflect on why you feel the need to deny my existence instead of opening yourself to dismantling the reductive stereotype you’ve been taught.
A bit over three years ago, I wrote about the relatively constant battle I fight — at least internally — to feel like a legitimate member of the Latinx community on account of my physical appearance and life experience. The feeling of not being quite “Mexican enough” to claim the label Latina while being definitively not White means I spend a lot of time feeling like I don’t belong much of anywhere.
This has lead to a lifetime of apologizing to people, basically, for not matching their stereotypes. Until recently, I didn’t think about which people I was apologizing to.
…said no Latinx person, ever.
Here’s the thing: I’ve literally never had a Latinx person tell me that I do not look Mexican. In the wisdom of hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. The categories Latinx / Hispanic are incredibly racially broad, and encompass people who could pass for everything from what we stereotypically think of as Swedish to Nigerian and Indigenous (yes, it’s because of colonialism, but that’s a longer and different discussion).
It even makes sense on a cognitive level. Given that Americans have historically had such limited representation of what our community looks like, the segregation of our society generally directly impedes folks ability to deconstruct their own stereotypes. That was even more true when I was a kid, and trying to form the identity I’d been told was mine. My “role models” for Latina-ness were Madonna as Evita and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro. They are both, as far as I am aware, White women (I’m still unpacking the impact of that realization on me, but it involved a metric shit ton of tears).
So who does tell me that I’m White, repeatedly? Mostly White people. I have had absolute strangers, colleagues, friends, and even biological family (I’m mixed, and it wasn’t on the Mexican side) tell me that I’m “not really Mexican, look at [my] eyes!”. They’re greenish-greyish-blueish, with a bit of light brown, for the record.
On hard days, I’ve just wanted to respond, “I’m deeply and specifically aware of my phenotype, your reminder was not necessary to ensure that fact.”
It’s finally occurred to me why negation and erasure is folks go-to response, and what a better way for folks to acknowledge my passing is.
Why people negate others
Honestly, White people say this to me often enough that if I had a nickel for every time I’ve had that awkward exchange, I could probably afford a condo in San Francisco. At a recent professional dinner, a CHRO actually said — in response to a joke — “Oh, you don’t look Mexican!”. I responded “White people say that to me a lot. It’s a broad category visually and otherwise, and I’ve found that there’s a huge lack of knowledge about that.”
When we encounter new information, we have two choices. We can allow it to expand our worldview and help us get to a deeper, truer, and more complete understanding of the world and other people. Or, we can reject new information because it doesn’t fit the mental models that we’ve already developed, substituting our individual perspective and experience for the actual truth and someone else’s actual existence.
When people tell me — and other people who pass — that we’re not a member of our communities, they are putting us in a box we never consented to be held in. In essence, they are protecting their ignorance by erasing our legitimate existence. They’re making a choice that values their comfort over our legitimation, which is a theme that feels like it’s what the phrase “broken record” was invented for.
If you’re feeling like this describes you, I’d sincerely ask you to consider another approach.
It’s ok to be surprised. It’s ok to learn.
It’s entirely unreasonable to expect everyone to know everything. We are all limited by the life experience that we’ve had. Living in San Francisco now, it’s hard to believe that it was me 14 years ago who didn’t really know that there were multiple types of Asian food (I know). But growing up in a predominantly White town where there was one Chinese restaurant was the mental model I was working with. Thankfully, I have lived in enough places now to have filled in a respectable portion of my gaps in knowledge. This is great for my general happiness, but also helps me not say hurtful shit to other people. Which is pretty ideal when I can manage it.
All I am asking of others is that they highlight their own learning instead of negating my existence. Perhaps “Oh, that surprises me!” or “Cool!” or “I didn’t realize!”.
…and maybe one day, a “Thank you for helping me deconstruct the reductive stereotypes I hold about your community so I can see you and support you more fully as you are.”
As always, sending the gratitude to folks who have affirmed and supported me in my learning and growth — about myself, my ancestors, and otherwise.
If you’re concerned I’m writing about you, I might be, in a general sense. I’d ask that you not dwell in shame or the “I fucked up” spiral, but give yourself permission to acknowledge a new piece of information and to take a different approach the next time you’re given the opportunity.